J and E’s dad fell off our porch roof this past weekend while attempting to retrieve a frisbee. He was OK, except for some scrapes and bruises, and, most notably, a nasty cut on his pinky finger that he’d gotten as he crashed his way down the rotten wooden trellis he’d climbed to reach the roof. I didn’t see it happen, and I think he would have kept the whole incident from me if he could have, but the broken trellis and bloody finger wouldn’t let him. He seemed a little embarrassed and angry at himself, texting us from urgent care that he felt like a “big dumb dad.” I knew just what kind of dad he meant: inept and arrogant, and deeply invested in his masculine prowess. I knew that the father of my children was nothing like this well-worn caricature, at this or any other moment of his tenure as “dad.” S has mashed avocados to the perfect consistency for toothless mouths and strapped babies to his chest while he shops for diaper cream and applesauce. He wears plush unicorn slippers with shiny gold horns to match his daughter’s light-up pink ones, and he relishes the role of the “cowardly” one, as he calls it, in the pretend quests and battles he enacts with E and J. He’s a dad who contains multitudes.
But big dumb dads are everywhere in the media that surrounds us, from the the video-game playing, beer-drinking ignoramuses who are mystified by the puzzle of diapering a baby, to the cringeworthy, clueless, and supremely confident dads on TV sitcoms. I’d argue that even a few of children’s literature’s best-beloved dads could qualify. When S fell off the roof, he wasn’t acting like these dads, but somehow, he felt like he was. He wasn’t, for example, acting like Papa Berenstain of Berenstain Bears renown: in The Berenstain Bears Go To the Doctor, Papa insists, through sneezes and coughs and fevers, that he is perfectly well, until he is proven wrong by the cubs’ pediatrician. In The Berenstain Bears and the Missing Honey, Papa blunders through town, wreaking havoc in expensive shops and his own mother’s backyard, searching for a thief who turns out to have been none other than a sleepwalking Papa himself. In both of these books, the mother figures know best: it’s the cubs’ capable and brusque female pediatrician who proves Papa’s illness with her masterful diagnostic eye and her thermometer, and it’s Mama who tells everyone how to solve the mystery within the first few pages of the book. Papa doesn’t listen, of course, but Mama is proven right in the end. I’ve even started to see a kind of proto-big-dumb-dad in Pa Ingalls of the Little House series, which E and I are reading right now. The Little House books are nothing if not a testament to this pioneer dad’s consummate skill in all things farm and forest, but they also show him, time and again, making bad choices about which farms and which forests his family should settle in–and always with the utmost confidence that this time–this place–will be just perfect.
I know how important it is for young readers to encounter fictional characters who both reflect and counter their own identities and experiences, whether in terms of race, gender, or class. I’m always glad to see this issue getting at least some of the attention it deserves–though it could certainly use more. But S’s brief moment as a big dumb dad in his own mind emphasizes how important it is for kids to see a different kind of diversity in their books as well, one that’s about not only race or gender or class, but also about who they are in the context of their own families. They need to know just how many different ways there are to be a father, a mother, a sister, or a brother. We try to expose our kids to books that show and celebrate just how many loving and worthy ways there are to play all of these roles, yet despite our best efforts, the big dumb dad managed to bumble his way into our non-fiction family drama this past weekend. Luckily, his appearance was little more than a cameo: S is smart and self-aware; he knows he’s not really a big dumb dad, and he knows why. But as I heard S muttering about his big dumb dadness, it struck me how much more difficult it must be for a child to keep hold of this kind of self-awareness–for a child to even develop this awareness, when he’s faced with so many representations that insist he’s nothing more than a sports-loving, inarticulate little terror–or that she’s nothing more than a glitter-loving little princess. When E reads books that feature big brothers who seem able to do nothing but either torment or protect their little sisters, or when he mulls over Papa Berenstain’s antics, what does he think? Does he see himself? I certainly hope not–and I’m pretty confident that having a real life smart dad is far more influential than any of the dumber ideas of “dad” that he encounters in books and shows.
But S was frustrated and embarrassed when he fell off the roof, and it was in this moment that he became a big dumb dad in his own eyes: when he was vulnerable, mad at himself, and flummoxed at what had happened. And that moment reminds me of E’s stricken face when he sees his sister’s angry tears, provoked by one too many of his insistently earnest explanations of just how wrong she is about the planets, or the length of a week, or the stem of a dandelion. At times like these, when E feels vulnerable, mad at himself, and even more flummoxed than an adult would be at such an emotional turn of events, does he feel like the moronic, tormenting older brothers that stalk his books and shows? I would hate to think so, particularly because it’s at moments like these that I so often reach for a book to read to my kids, to calm them down and distract them–if only for a little while–from the difficult work of being brother and sister and learning how to love each other better. It’s work that only gets more complicated as they get older, and they need all the help they can get from their books.
We try to find books that will help them: in Mary Leary’s Karate Girl, for example, it’s the big sister who takes up karate to protect her little brother from bullies–though both siblings ultimately learn that the true value of karate lies in confidence, not clobbering. In the Magic Treehouse series, brother Jack and sister Annie are a team, and it’s often Annie who’s more intrepid than her brother. Even Papa Berenstain himself is sometimes the kind of dad who’s more smart than dumb, bigger in heart and mind than in muscles or ego: in some books, he shares stories about how he, too, used to be afraid of the dark; sometimes he even solves domestic problems with a cooler head and more resourceful thinking than the ever-capable Mama Bear.
Papa Bear, who seems like such a blowhard in some Berenstain Bears books, has other dimensions, other possibilities: if we read each book in the series about his family’s life as varying representations of the same character, then we start to see something more than a big dumb dad. We start to see something more like a real live smart dad we might admire–one whose expansive dadness can’t be contained by a limited stereotype. In Siblings Without Rivalry, authors and parenting coaches Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish urge parents to resist casting their kids into familial roles, like victim or bully, problem child, or peacemaker. It makes sense: being pigeonholed into such roles tells kids things about who they are that can’t possibly be true. Kids, after all, are still growing and developing, still working hard to get to know themselves and their families. Maybe S was being a little bit–just a little bit–like a big dumb dad when he tried to get that frisbee off the roof. But this moment was only one of the many and varied moments in his life as a dad, the vast majority of which are smart, loving, and responsible–I could hardly believe what had happened when S told me. He still surprises us, and he inspires us to stay on the hunt for literary dads who have at least some measure of his wonderful variety.